Tagged: LFF2020

LFF 2020 #7: Striding into the Wind (Ye Ma Fen Zong, China 2020)

Tong (left) and Kun messin’ about – as they do for most of the film

This is a difficult film to categorise. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it does mean that the film has attracted some very positive reviews but also some dismissals. It’s a film which requires a viewer to have some idea about the context of filmmaking in China over the last twenty or thirty years. Writer-director Wei Shejun saw his début short film selected for Cannes competition in 2018, winning a ‘Special Distinction’ Award and both that film and this his début feature have featured at festivals around the world. Striding into the Wind is inspired by his own experiences as a film student. He has also clearly learned how to use festival interviews. A Variety interview and his LFF interview see him name-checking various influences and at one point arguing that currently China has no ‘global directors’. He knows how to play the game and there are sections in this film that demonstrates he can make interesting cinema as well. What it all adds up to is something that needs working through.

At the start of the film I thought that I was in for a ‘slacker comedy’ which isn’t really my kind of thing. Zhou Kun with a kind of mullet-cum-ponytail is a student at a film school repeating a year, which means he has plenty of time to spare to help his classmate Tong Shao-jie learn how to become an audio technician. Kun has a job as sound man on a student (or alumni?) film and Tong tags along trying to learn. Kun has enough industry knowledge to be able to correct his tutor who doesn’t seem to have worked since he left the Film Academy. The digs about the Fifth Generation directors being out of touch now and the Sixth Generation making the same kinds of films all the time (comments by Wei in the Q&A) are seemingly drawn from the director’s own experience in film school. Kun and Tong go on to try to develop various other scams to make money and as well as the possible Hollywood genre connections, I thought that at this point that I might have seen similar films from the new Indian Independent Cinema or perhaps from South Korea. After a while though, the buddy movie at the centre of the narrative begins to be displaced by a genuine romance with the appearance of A Zhi as Kun’s girlfriend. She is much more sussed than the two students and is making money as a model/cheerleader/’eye candy’ for promotional events. It’s a waste of her degree in Chinese Literature but she has a plan. She also seems to have a genuine personality and possibly to care for Kun – but will he have the sense to see this? To be fair to Kun, Zhi is prepared to conform and he isn’t. I have to agree with the BFI interviewer (whose name I didn’t catch, there were access problems in trying to view the Q&A a second time) when she suggested that A Zhi (Zheng Yin Chen) has a real presence which makes the romance narrative possible. But will Kun have the nouse to make it work?

The two young men and one woman trio and one or two other elements in the plot made me think of the early Jia Zhangke film Unknown Pleasures (2002). Jia is, I would argue, the leading Chinese auteur in the global art film market. His wasn’t a name that Wei Shejun checked (Hou Hsiao-hsien was mentioned twice). The Jia references increased for me in the closing section of Striding Into the Wind when Kun and Tong Shao-jie travel to Inner Mongolia to complete the shoot of the film they have been working on since the director wants some ‘authentic ‘ atmosphere for his film. This means a shift to the road movie and a series of reflections on the romance of the region (the wind in the grass, the horses etc.) and also the artificiality of ‘tourist’ versions of Mongolian culture. This trip is tied in to Kun’s relationship with the venerable Jeep Cherokee that he buys cheap at the beginning of the film. Kun has always dreamed about visiting Inner Mongolia so the car is central to how he will understand (or not) his own fantasies and sort out what he wants to do with his life.

China has grown so fast as an economy in the last twenty years and it has been difficult for societal changes to keep pace. It’s hardly surprising that young men born in the late 1990s have issues if they try to do anything else other than knuckle down and conform. Kun has problems with his mother a teacher, his father a police officer and A Zhi’s dad, an accountant as well as his tutor. Tong Shao-jie seems almost completely detached from family in the performance by Tong Lin Kai who was discovered as a non-professional by the director and certainly has a presence in the film. I’d like to show this film in tandem with a film like Beijing Bicycle (dir. Wang Xiaoshuai, China-Taiwan-France 2001) which less than twenty years ago shows a similar trio of young(er) people in Beijing trying to cope with a very different city.

Striding Into the Wind is a hybrid comedy/romance/road trip with an element of family melodrama. The narrative is probably too loose and could be tightened, but the players are engaging and there does seem to be a kind of commentary both on contemporary China and on filmmaking. I look forward to seeing what Wei Shejun does next. The film is produced by the Chinese internet giant Alibaba and is showing in North America on festival screens. Unfortunately the promotion doesn’t seem to be using many images or videos so apologies for the lack of illustrative material here.

LFF 2020 #6: Identifying Features (Sin señas particulares, Mexico-Spain 2020)

Jésus (Juan Jesús Varela)

This film shares several elements with an earlier festival screening, A Common Crime.  Like that Argentinian film, it has the issue of ‘disappeared’ at its centre and a discourse of violence – though in this case the police don’t seem to be involved in causing the deaths. Like the Argentinian film it also has a woman in the lead role, played by a respected theatre actress, but in this case the character Magdalena is a working-class woman from Central Mexico and significantly older at 48. Finally, both films seem to be ‘personal’ and the work of an auteur director rather than aiming for generic status, despite including some familiar generic elements.

Magdalena searching for clues

The film’s title refers to the language of the official paperwork, used when bodies are found and might be identified by relatives, usually the parents of young men. The film begins with a painful goodbye as a teenager, despairingly young Jésus, says goodbye to his mother and heads out across the plain with his slightly older friend, hoping to make it across the US border and meet up with the friend’s uncle in Arizona where he could find a job. After a couple of months Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) has heard nothing from her son and she decides to travel to the border to try to find out what might have happened. At the border, the filmmakers surprise us by introducing two characters who initially don’t seem to be connected to Magdalena. One is another woman also seeking her son who disappeared much earlier but who the authorities believe they have identified through DNA and blood samples. There appear to be two reasons why, for the narrative, Magdalena must meet this woman. Firstly, the woman is middle-class, an ophthalmologist, and her son went missing during a holiday driving with friends. This demonstrates the breadth of the problem of lawlessness in Northern Mexico. There are all kinds of criminal activity that can lead to ‘disappearances’ and they don’t just affect young men in poverty. Secondly, the woman convinces Magdalena not to give up in her search for her son. We don’t meet this character again, but Magdalena does indeed resolve to carry on her search. Her son is everything to her. She doesn’t have a partner.

Miguel (David Illescas) returning to Mexico voluntarily after being stopped by US Border Patrol. Photo by Claudia Bercerril.

The narrative at one point switches to a parallel strand to follow a young man who is being deported back to Mexico by American border control forces. He is advised to make a voluntary return to Mexico. Miguel is a few years older than Jésus but his story might be similar. At this point his story gives us a sense of how the border controls work and also illustrates the difference between the hi-tech drone surveillance of the Americans and the more basic conditions south of the border. We will meet Miguel later in the narrative when he and Magdalena meet near his home region. I don’t want to spoil what happens in the second half of the narrative. But I need to say that what Magdalena discovers is that in the ‘badlands’ of Chihuahua and Sonora (which are actually quite beautiful as depicted here) there are people who help her and people who are very bad indeed. The narrative ends violently and surprisingly.

A truck is stopped by masked men in the wilds of Northern Mexico

Identifying Features is a film made by a creative team and crew comprising mostly women. The writers are Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Rondero. Valadez directed the film and Rondero was the principal producer. In the Q&A the two women suggested that they felt more freedom to experiment when on location outside the city. This is evident in the work of cinematographer Claudia Becerril Bulos, especially in the second half of the film where she captures long shots of landscapes very well making good use of the ‘Scope frame and also uses shallow depth of field to explore what I understand is now termed ‘bokeh‘. This Japanese term refers to the different qualities of the blurred image produced by combinations of camera types and different lenses. These different forms of blurring can create subtle effects and here Bulos uses them in scenes featuring human figures against a background of fire at night. The effect is startling, being visually confusing but in tune with the narrative development at that point.

The tone of the film is also set by the remarkable score by the American composer Clarice Jensen, the artistic director of ACME (the American Contemporary Music Ensemble) who has worked with many international talents including Jóhann Jóhannsson, Max Richter and Björk. The trailer below gives some education of the music and cinematography in the film. Identifying Features is a very impressive film, especially for a début feature after several years working on shorts. Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Rondero worked together on shorts swapping roles on each other’s films and their next project will be directed by Rondero, I think. I enjoyed Identifying Features but it is a difficult watch at times and the closing scenes are extremely violent (but the violence is not shown directly in most cases). I hope the film gets wider distribution and I look forward to further work from the pair.

LFF 2020 #5: Shadow Country (Krajina ve stínu, Czech Republic 2020)

The christening at the start of the narrative. Marie is between her husband and her sister-in-law who holds the infant

This is one of the best films I’ve seen to present the real dangers inherent in nationalism and its inevitable decline into fascism between the late 1930s and the early 1950s. What is so remarkable about it is the humanist approach which is careful not to create monsters but instead to offer glimpses of the decent people who find themselves doing unspeakable things. I think that there are a couple of irredeemable characters and possibly one who is true to her beliefs throughout, but most are not simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’, just ‘ordinary folk’ whose behaviour becomes unacceptable in the extraordinary times. Director Bohdan Sláma told us in the Q&A that the script by Ivan Arsenyev drew on historical events but that the villagers were developed as fictional characters.

Marie’s German in-laws prepare to welcome their new status – but the armband has the swastika reversed

The narrative takes place in a village in the south of Bohemia, i.e the Western part of the state of Czechoslovakia, close to the Austrian border. When the new Republic was founded after the First World War and the break-up of the old Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Czechoslovakia found itself newly independent but with a significant German-speaking minority of over 20% of the total population. These were referred to as Sudeten Germans (named after local mountain ranges) and they were a majority in the new borderlands of the republic around the the Western, North-Western and South-Western parts of the country. Prior to 1918 these communities would have been in Germany or Austria. By the late 1930s and with the loud clamour of Nazi re-armament in Germany, the ‘Sudetenland’ began to make claims for the territories to be returned to Germany-Austria, especially after the Nazis forced the Anschluss on Austria. In the fictional village, the inhabitants voted to become German. Life became difficult for those maintaining their Czech identity and got worse when Germany annexed all of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Adults in the village could now remember living in Austria, then Czechoslovakia and now Nazi Germany.

The Germans arrive in the village

The main period of the war is only a relatively short section of the narrative, principally focusing on the fate of the Jewish family and whatever resistance was possible for the Czechs. More time is spent on the aftermath of the war in 1945 and then on into the early 1950s when further movements of people were still taking place. The film begins and ends with Marie (Magdaléna Borová). As the narrative begins her baby is being christened. She is from a Czech family but has married a German. The whole village celebrates but only a few months later her husband declares himself ‘German’ and though Marie protests, she is classified as German as well. In 1945 she is expelled from the village and forced to live for a time in the woods outside the town as Austria won’t accept her. Then she is taken back by the village but humiliated because of her German connections. She will be moved again and she embodies the struggle to remain true to yourself while those around you are less scrupulous. You feel she will survive and that she represents the strengths of Central European peoples who have had to suffer so many changes of borders and rulers.

Josef, who attempted resistance, returns from the concentration camp in 1945 and is welcomed close to the village

The film features an ensemble narrative, brilliantly choreographed in black and white ‘Scope by the director and cinematographer Divis Marek. Many shots are composed in depth during community gatherings. There are also several music performances and overall there is a real sense of a village culture with separate narrative strands for a large number of characters. The focus on events after 1945 is interesting but very painful to watch as the script cleverly demonstrates how a former principled resistance fighter is forced to act as part of the ‘restoring order’ directive and then later investigated for not following proper procedures. Alongside this we see a number of events that demonstrate the savage ironies of occupation, collaboration and ‘national renewal’. There is no moral superiority in the film as far as I could see.

Marie with her new baby is forced into the woods in 1945

I was a little surprised at the relatively low profile of the Czech Communist party and the absence of Russians after 1945 but this is possibly simply a result of my own ignorance of events in Czechoslovakia from 1945 onwards. The scope of Shadow Country as a narrative with a wealth of characters across a period of some 15 or more years suggests parallels with Edgar Reitz’s long TV serial Heimat in 1984. When Shadow Country ended I felt like I wanted to watch the next episode to find out what happened to the surviving villagers from the late 1930s during the 1950s and beyond. At the same time, I also felt that the film I’d just seen was a real warning for audiences in Western Europe and North America about how fascism can destroy lives and communities. Those seem like major achievements for the makers of Shadow Country and I hope that the film gets seen widely.

LFF 2020 #4: A Common Crime (Un crimen común, Argentina-Brazil-Switz 2020)

Cecilia and Juan

I watched this film without much preparation. I knew the title and I had read that it had links to that important and deep-rooted issue of ‘disappearances’ in Argentina. But I did expect that the main focus would be the crime and its investigation in some way. It isn’t. Instead it’s a narrative about someone who almost unknowingly becomes part of the crime scenario and who then suffers the consequences. The film is presented in Academy ratio. The only reason for this as far as I can see is that it represents the increasing sense of entrapment felt by the central character Cecilia.

This is an intelligent and very well-made film with a stunning central performance by Elisa Carricajo, who is well-known in the theatre in Argentina. Much of the cast comprises non-professional actors and the technical credits are very impressive especially sound design, editing and cinematography. The writer-director Francisco Márquez was very clear about his intentions in the Q&A that followed the screening. The ‘common crime’ here refers to both the ‘institutional violence’ of the Argentinian police (which Márquez argues amounts to daily deaths of young men in custody or on the street) and to the ‘blind eye’ of the Argentinian middle class when it comes to action to stop this violence – which perpetuates the history of ‘disappearing’ those deemed as dangerous by the authorities. These disappeared are nearly all young men living in poverty conditions.

Cecilia visits Nebe whose house is approached through a maze of narrow alleyways

It’s very difficult to comment on the narrative without spoiling it for future audiences so I’ll just outline a couple of events and characters without going into too many details. Cecilia is a sociology teacher in a local university (a very low-key institution, but perhaps that just reflects the low budget of the film?). She is in the process of applying for a more senior job at the university which is one of the pressures on her, although everyone expects her to get the job. She lives in a small single-story dwelling with her small son Juan who must be 10 or 11? Her childcare is shared with the boy’s father who seems to have him a couple of days a week. Cecilia doesn’t seem like much of a cook and she also employs a cleaner cum housekeeper Nebe. This gives her a little extra time to prepare her lectures. It’s a while since I’ve been presented with quotes from Althusser and later on a pair of her ex-students ask her advice on preparing an abstract for a paper. They seem to be an encouraging pair of academic rebels who adopt a Gramscian approach – hurrah! Cecilia’s reaction to their request for advice is interesting.

The central incident comes one night when Cecilia is alone in the house, awake during a storm when she hears someone pounding on her door and crying for help. Peering through the blinds, she sees a figure who might be Nebe’s grown-up son Kevin who Cecilia had met briefly a couple of days earlier. But it’s the middle of the night and Cecilia is frightened. She goes back to bed without opening the door. Later it is revealed that Kevin has ‘disappeared’. Cecilia visits Nebe in what is considered as the ‘rough’ part of town, reassuring Nebe that she will pay her while she takes time off and campaigns to find her son, but not mentioning the night-time incident.

From this point on, Cecilia begins a downward spiral as the failure to help her visitor in the night begins to prey on her. The second half of the film depends very much on Elisa Carricajo’s excellent performance and the subtle sound design. I also feel that the costumes she is given to wear seem particularly unflattering and it’s interesting to see her smoking. I don’t know what the smoking levels in Argentina are like now but in a UK context, a teacher smoking is someone who might be considered as ‘under stress’. The script rather conveniently prevents any later scenes of her teaching – which is where I would expect the stress to become more obvious. But I was shocked by Cecilia’s behaviour at a friend’s dinner table.

I think there are a number of films which similarly deal with middle-class angst about ‘not doing the proper thing’, sometimes a question of morality and sometimes an almost criminal act. In that sense this film is generic. In the second half of the film the director also uses some familiar devices from psychological horror stories. Most of these are used in subtle ways through editing and sound effects but some – the shower curtain ripped open to reveal nothing, a toy racetrack with cars still running in an empty house – are perhaps too familiar. Listening to the director and appreciating his approach it is clear he was attempting a more profound statement about the issue in Argentina and the film aims for a level of social realism. He had some success with a previous film also raising questions about ‘disappearances’ and his worked has been bracketed with that of Lucretia Martlel’s The Headless Woman (2008). I’m not sure how much I enjoyed Un crimen común, but I admire its production. However, I think it might be a tough sell to distributors and I think audiences would need some preparation if they are not to be disappointed because of expectations about a crime fiction thriller.

The trailer below (with English subs) reveals a little more of the plot and illustrates Cecilia’s decline.

LFF 2020 #3: The Salt in Our Waters (Nonajoler Kabbo, Bangladesh-France 2020)

I think this is the fourth Bangladeshi film to appear on my film festival lists over the past couple of years and like the previous three this is both entertaining and informative. Writer-director Rezwan Shahriar Sumit has come through the film festival route (Berlinale 2008) and then the Tisch School of the Arts, NYU. This is his début feature.

Rudro (Titas Zia) is an artist in his early thirties from Dhaka who first meet at the quayside trying to get his large wooden crate shipped to the delta region of the south where he has arranged to stay in a remote fishing village to develop a project. The idea of using the village as a base came from his late father, a coastguard engineer who travelled through the delta. The village turns out to be very small, a dozen or so families, all linked to fishing for ilish, the prized national fish of Bangladesh. Fishing is dangerous in open boats  and especially so during the South-West monsoon which is the time when the shoals of fish are more abundant close to the shore.

Bashar’s family

Rudro’s landlord, Bashar (Ashok Bepari) has a young son and an older daughter Tunni who are quick to discover what is in Rudro’s crate and soon the boys in the village are taking part in art projects, especially trying their hand at modelling figures. This will prove problematic. The small community is in thrall to ‘the Chairman’, a seasoned fisherman who has travelled and installed himself as both local head man and imam. He helps to spread the idea that Rudro’s figures are ‘idols’ and that because of this, the community may be punished and the fish may not be found. The ‘contest’ between Rudro and the Chairman (Fazlur Rahman Babu) becomes the main driver of the narrative.

The Chairman addressing the village men

In the Q&A that followed the film, the director told us that the power of the Chairman and his use of Islam to condemn Rudro’s sculptures could be found in small communities like some of those in the delta – but not in Bangladesh generally. The Chairman tries to convince the fisher-folk that Rudro is the reason why the fish can’t be found and catches are small. It’s the age-old story of modernity vs. tradition. Rudro himself does nothing to prompt these attacks but he doesn’t realise the importance of Tunni’s advice that he shouldn’t try to talk to the young girls or the women in the community generally. She, on the other hand is very curious about him and I realised later that her relationship with Rudro, her father’s house guest, reminded me of two of the three stories by Rabindranath Tagore that Satyajit Ray adapted for his film Teen Kanya (Three Girls, 1961). Ray’s film is set in the same delta region in which two men from the city, who arrive for different specific purposes, become the object of attention from two different young girls.

Tunni and Rudro

Tunni (Tasnova Tamanna) is a bright young woman who is clearly intrigued by life in the city. In fact Sumit is careful in his presentation of all of the villagers and even the Chairman, though he is devious in how he tries to turn the community against Rudro, still retains enough human qualities to avoid becoming a typical ‘villain’. The director explained that he made several visits to the delta during the long preparations for the film. He also became aware of the implications of climate change in the region which is on the frontline for the first major impact of any rise in sea levels and for the increasing power of extreme weather.

Technical credits on the film are excellent, especially the cinematography of Chananun Chotrungroj who the director met via NYU. Her Thai background may have helped her capture the luminous shots of landscape and the villagers which can be seen in the trailer below. The performances are generally very good. Only the Chairman and his henchman are professional actors, I think. All the other roles are either non-professionals or relatively inexperienced film actors like those playing Rudro and Tunni. I haven’t found out the precise reason for the title of the film, though I am aware that ilish is a fish that lives in both the sea and river estuaries and that like the salmon it returns to the river to spawn. The balance between freshwater and salt water is central to the continued livelihood of the fishing villages.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching this film and it made me think longingly of visiting the delta – and eating ilsha (hilsa) cooked in a mustard sauce.

LFF 2020 #2: Wildfire (Ireland-UK 2020)

Kelly (Nika McGuigan, left) and Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone) Photo by Aidan Monaghan/WILDFIRE

‘Wildfire’ is a good title for this intense 84 minute drama/melodrama that tells a personal story carefully set in a political-cultural context, allowing a metaphor to remain visible in the flames. This is an ‘Irish’ film though it is officially an Ireland-UK co-production under an EU framework agreement. You won’t read too much about that anymore and instead the headlines will be about ‘borders’. Fortunately there is still some sanity about and the film has funding from the BFI, BBC and Channel 4 as well as other Irish and UK partners. It’s already listed as ‘coming soon’ on Film 4 so I hope it will get a wide audience.

Kelly is a young woman of around 30 who we meet on a ferry in the Irish Sea, about to return to Ireland after a year away. I’m not sure if she lands in the South or the North but either way she heads for the border and her home town. Her older sister Lauren has not seen her since she left without warning and this narrative ‘disturbance’ has profound effects on everyone, including Lauren’s partner Sean and the sisters’ aunt, Veronica. Kelly and Lauren have lost both parents in tragic circumstances and their mother’s death still seems mysterious to Kelly. The film opens with a montage of news clips that range from the ‘Troubles’ to ‘Brexit’ and the town is built around a river which straddles the border so that as children the girls would swim “in both countries” at once.

It’s not easy dealing with your shared past . . .

I’ve seen one review that pitches the film’s aesthetic as a tussle between “gritty social realism and magic realist melodrama” and that’s not a bad suggestion, though I would argue that social realism often uses melodrama and that Kelly’s hallucinatory moments could be read as the product of her psychological state. The same (Irish) reviewer writes: “We’re not great when it comes to dealing with grief, trauma and other mental health issues.” Given what succeeding generations in Ireland have suffered as a result of British colonial intervention over hundreds of years that’s not surprising. The promise of no borders, now seemingly to be broken by Johnson and his cronies, simply exacerbates the confusion over identity and the pain of broken lives.

It’s staggering that this is a début film by writer-director Cathy Brady who has previously received recognition for her short films. The strength of the film derives from the performances and direction and it is no surprise to discover that Brady and her two principals, played by Nika McGuigan and Nora-Jane Noonan, were able to create something so powerful through extensive workshops over a year of preparation. The film was a genuine co-production. It seems to have been made across the island of Ireland and I think that’s important. I didn’t recognise the area in which the town was located and perhaps that’s a good thing. Cathy Brady is listed as coming from Newry in Co. Down and so is Nika McGuigan, though her father, the boxer Barry McGuigan was born in Co. Monaghan. Tragically Nika died before the film completed post-production from a return of the cancer she first had as a young teenager. What a talent was lost on the basis of this performance. I realise looking through Nora-Jane Noonan’s credits that I must have seen her in several films. I might go back and look at the horror film The Descent (2005) which I remember using with students. Wildfire is very much a film about the sisters and often it’s the other female characters who they run up against. It’s always good to see Kate Dickie, here playing Aunt Veronica and in some ways the villain of the piece. The other female ‘presence’ is the mother (Olga Wehrly). Cathy Brady is supported in the production by some of the leading figures in the recent upsurge of independent films by European women. The film was shot by Crystel Fournier, cinematographer on the first three features by Céline Sciamma and Carlo Cresto-Dina, one of three producers on the film also acted as a producer on the first three features directed by Alice Rohrwacher. No wonder Cathy Brady is attracting a lot of interest.

Dancing to Them

I enjoyed this film very much. At moments I wanted to look away and shout ‘No!’ but that’s my problem because I was so engaged. I’ve read quite a few reviews of the film and I’m a bit fed up with reviewers who can’t cope with melodrama i.e. they think it is a bad thing and one refers to it as ‘silliness’. There are several reviews which argue that the film ‘loses its way’ in the final third. On the contrary it builds up to the finale we have been waiting for. In a key scene with no ‘scene-setting’, the sisters are in a bar dancing together wildly to Them with Van Morrison shouting his way through ‘G-L-O-R-I-A’. We already know that one of Kelly’s memories as a child was listening to her mother singing and dancing along to Van. From this point on there is no stopping.

I hope my other picks for the festival are as good as this and I hope to catch the film again on Film 4 or, better still, in a cinema if I ever get into one again.